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Horror film genres

Horror films are an extremely important part of the global market and they have one additional trait that makes them very interesting for the writer: A horror film can often be made relatively cheaply compared to its potential market. Here we take a brief look at the major sub-genres and tonal choices. Where a selection of film examples are offered it is because they are excellent examples of the type, not necessarily that they are the finest horror films ever made.

Supernatural horror

One of the largest categories of the horror genre is the supernatural story. While there are other sub-genres that are undoubtedly 'supernatural', the term in the industry means stories about beings that are largely or entirely non-corporeal.

These are the ghost stories, the demonic posessions and the haunted houses. Zombies, vampires and werewolves are not in this genre.

Generally the supernatural film is moody, nocturnal, sparse and tense. Often it is built like a psychological story rather than an action film. Critically the only solution in a supernatural story is to turn to the supernatural for help.

  • Location is homely.
  • Antagonist is unseen or disembodied.
  • More tension than violence.
  • Supernatural cause and resolution.
Gothic horror

Gothic horror is the genre that describes classic corporeal monsters. Vampires, mummies and werewolves are the most prominent types, along with gothic literature staples like Dr. Jekyll and Frankenstein. The tone is often dark and aristocratic with the monsters more physical, more violent and more gory than supernatural dangers.

The importance of the gothic story is that the monster isn't simply an unfeeling force of nature, Gothic monsters have desires, character traits, weaknesses. They may be driven by sexual need or physical hunger. They act as the embodiment of the evil. If you imagine that the occupants of a haunted house in a supernatural film might be considered 'cursed' then in a gothic tale the curse, if it exists, is applied indirectly. The monster bears the curse and its beastliness is a consequence.

Gothic horror, like supernatural horror, tends to be quite stiff in execution. It's possible to make a funny werewolf movie but in making it funny it stops being gothic, like the way 'film noir' is dependent greatly on its tone.

  • Location is foreign.
  • Antagonist is physical and inhuman..
  • Physical violence is common.
  • Supernatural cause but often natural solution (fire, beheading...).
Survival horror

Survival horror is one of the types that relies on plausible monsters. In survival horror the monsters are people and the tale is played out over a strange or forbidding terrain. The typical plot follows a group of people who find themselves placed in peril and the evildoers catch and kil them one by one.

The most common outcome is that between none and two of the victims will survive, often exactly one of them.

The distinctive trait of survival horror is that it takes the characters into enemy territory, the monsters are on home turf, the victims battle through unfamiliar and terrifying strangeness.

  • Location is frightening in itself.
  • Antagonist is real and physical.
  • Ongoing violence.
  • Natural cause and resolution.
Road Warrior survival - Jeepers Creepers, Monster Man.
Wilderness survival - A Lonely Place to Die, Frozen, Wolf Creek.
Hillbilly survival - The Hills Have Eyes, Wrong Turn, Mum and Dad.
Slasher films

The exact logical opposite of the survival horror is the slasher. This time the monsters come into the comfort-zone of the victims. In this form of horror the places you feel safe are actually where you shoud most be afraid.

A very large number of the most successful horror stories, and horror franchises, fall into this category. As with survival horror there is generally a steady decline in the number of good guys over the course of the film and often at the end very few victims live.

  • Location is homely.
  • Antagonist is real and physical.
  • Much tension and violence.
  • Natural cause and resolution.
Monster movies

The monster movie is the horror film done as a big scale adventure. Here the monsters could be practically anything from giant insects to dinosaurs. If you can think of it then it's probably been made.

Usually the monsters aren't complex characters, they are more simply constructed, but they are still the 'enemy', not merely the cause of death. This is an important distinction. Imagine in a thriller the villain ties someone to railway tracks. The train doesn't become the villain, it's just a 'force of nature'. If the villain is human and the monster is unthinking then it's not a horror film. If the whole story describes villains that are responsible for peoples deaths at the sharp end of some unfeeling force then it's a disaster film.

Monster movies are excellent vehicles for anything from subtle tension to high farce. They remain popular and varied.

  • Location is broad.
  • Antagonist is physical and beastly.
  • Heavy action and violence.
  • Cause and resolution physical.
Revenge movies

These could also be seen as 'what happens next'. The surviving victim of a horror film steps up to take vengeance on the villains.

Revenge films are thematically very different from the other types because this is a film in which we should be ambivalent towards the protagonist. We should be supportive of his survival but critical of his vengeance. Done well a film like this can leave the auduence feeling very uncomfortable indeed because they are torn between disgust at the vengeful character and enthusiasm for the comeuppance.

  • Location is uncomfortable.
  • Antagonist is protagnist.
  • Psychological tension and extreme violence.
  • Realistic, human cause and resolution.

The profusion of zombie films has led to them establishing something of a niche. Essentially the zombie film is a monster movie with traits of a disaster film and the slasher or survival horror as well. It creates a monster that is also a villain and which stalks its prey relentlessly like a slasher.

This combination can be seen with other monsters, but is most common in zombie movies because the zombies are somewhat like an unfeeling force of nature but also somewhat like us.

  • Location is homely.
  • Antagonist is physical.
  • More action than violence, more violence than tension.
  • Supernatural cause and natural resolution.
Psychological thrillers

Told like a gothic tale or a film noir but with a human antagonist and a realistic style. These are often the most widely accomplished of the genre films and the people who have made them include some of the greatest names in cinema.

The most important tonal trait of this type of horror is that the authorities can be involved during the meat of the story. What I mean is that in most horror the objective is to reach the police for help. In a psychological thriller it is often the police or similar authorities that are hunting the villain already.

  • Location is dangerous.
  • Antagonist is real and violent.
  • More tension than violence.
  • Natural cause and plausible resolution.
Serial killer - Peeping Tom, The Silence of the Lambs, Chained.
True serial killer - Bundy, Jack Ketchum's The Girl Next Door (caution - extremely disturbing), The Hillside Strangler.
Mystery thriller - Dial M for Murder, True Love Ways.
Ambiguous horror

Some horror films deliberately defy category. Some remain ambiguous right to the end, leaving you with the question as to whether you were seeing a ghost story or a case of mental breakdown. Others are not ambiguous at the end but cleverly make you wonder which of the categories you're watching until well into the film.

These can be among the most powerful and complex of stories, leaving the viewer with a visceral reaction in one direction and a directly opposed intellectual and emotional reaction. It

Tone in horror

The tonal characteristics of a horror film are among its most defining moments. The most common choices are listed here.

Gorefests are intended for mass appeal and deliver their shocks through splatter and screaming. Gore can b visually compelling but it isn't usually inherently scary so the gorier a film is the more surreal its violence and ultimately the more cartoonish the tone. Having said all that, if you make a dark and moody film and then put gore all through it you can have a very effective product.
2000 Maniacs, Braindead, Pirahna 3D
Bullet ballet
Hyper-real and stylised, the bullet ballet makes acts of violence into things of beauty. These films relish action and have slow-motion shots of weapons firing and martial arts techniques. The closing shot to a sequence with the gunfire finished and replaced with the tinkling of fired cartridge cases hitting the floor is so cliché as to be laughable, but this type of film has many fans and can be a compelling thriller if made well.
Kill Bill Part 1, Dredd, Nightwatch
Physical effects are used to drive home the terror and pain of the victims in a realistic, almost documentary style. These films can be tough to watch and they are not for the faint-hearted. Skilled film-makers can produce something that looks very much like a real horror. Please exercise caution in watching suggested examples from this tonal set. They can be extremely graphic and brutal...
Martyrs, Saw, Hostel
Found footage
The conceit is that the film is recorded in real time by the people in the situation and first reached a global audience with the stunningly successful The Blair Witch Project. It can be unpleasantly like watching a badly edited home movie and camera shake can be a real disaster, but if done well it is possible to make a fine film of this type..
Rec, Cloverfield, Jeruzalem
Horror comedy
Obviously there are broad comedies made based on every kind of film genre. A horror comedy isn't one of those, it isn't Scary Movie. It's a film that is actually a properly constructed horror film, just filled with humour.
Tucker and Dale versus Evil, Shaun of the Dead, Monster Man

"Life is full of misery, loneliness and suffering--and it's all over much too soon."

Woody Allen